"It's Armageddon time for medical marijuana in California," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML Thursday evening. "This may take years to play out, but the battle lines are drawn."
Given the rapidly escalating confrontation between the federal government and the people of California over medical marijuana in the last few weeks, Gieringer can be forgiven for resorting to biblical end-time allusions. Recently, the DEA and the its master, Attorney General John Ashcroft, have been raiding about one medical marijuana dispensary or garden a week, despite a state law that allows for the use of medical marijuana in the state. The latest assault came Thursday, when a federal agent accosted Steve McWilliams, operator of the Shelter From the Storm Collective in San Diego, and handed him a letter notifying him that he faced federal prosecution if he did not shut down his garden, CANORML reported Thursday evening. Two days earlier, McWilliams had led a medical marijuana giveaway in San Diego to protest the escalating series of attacks on the state's medical marijuana providers.
"No way is this a proper federal case," said Gieringer. "They are punishing him for exercising his First Amendment freedom of speech and for telling the truth about what's going on. Once again, the federal government is targeting a conspicuous leader who tried to be honest and deal with this openly."
Shelter From the Storm is a small, six-patient collective well regarded by local authorities and in compliance with state laws. Its patients include a 73-year-old woman with leukemia and a 70-year-old man with prostate cancer, Gieringer said. "This is a large scale federal assault on the right of the people to have access to the medicine they need. The federal government is literally trying to take medicine from seriously ill patients. What does this have to do with the proper exercise of federal power?" he asked. "Nothing. This is an all-out prohibitionist war against Americans' medical rights."
It is a war that is being increasingly contested. In the wake of the federal raid on the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (http://www.wamm.org) in Santa Cruz two weeks ago and the raid on Genesis 1:29 in Petaluma last week, the state's emerging medical marijuana resistance has been energized, with demonstrations at federal buildings in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Ana, Sacramento, and other cities on Monday and a widely publicized medical marijuana giveaway at Santa Cruz's City Hall on Tuesday. Led by Americans for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccessnow.org), medical marijuana advocates, their supporters, and even some elected officials are mobilizing for a demonstration Monday in Sacramento that could mark a new era in the conflict.
The demonstration could be the largest non-smoke-in drug reform protest ever, said Shawn Heller, national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), which has mounted a major effort to bus large numbers of students to the protest from throughout the region. Other participating organizations include the Marijuana Policy Project, NORML, Common Sense for Drug Policy, the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Medical Marijuana Association, and drug reform groups from across California, according to the ASA web page.
"This may be the most important event in California medical marijuana history," said Heller, who has been in the state for the past week. "This is highly coordinated and organized. We will have buses decked in banners coming from all over the state, we will have the young people of California saying 'we voted for this, this is our law, and we want our elected officials to stand up and protect our rights, we want them to stand up to the DEA,'" he said.
"The students are energized and pumped, and we have the resources to make this happen," Heller added. "SSDP laid the foundation, created the network of students, and now we are calling that network into action. And look for lots of independent affinity groups, too," he said.
The protest is building on the energy created by earlier resistance, including this week's nationally covered medical marijuana giveaway in Santa Cruz. On Tuesday, Mayor Christopher Krohn, numerous city council members, and more than a thousand supporters attended the marijuana giveaway -- limited to certified WAMM patients -- held at City Hall in defiance of the feds. "Santa Cruz is a special place, and today we're letting the world know how compassionate we can be," said Krohn. "Today we're taking a stand."
The DEA's San Francisco spokesman was not amused. "We're dismayed that the city council and the mayor of Santa Cruz would condone the distribution of marijuana," said Richard Meyer. "I don't know what they're thinking, but they're flaunting federal law. And we here at the DEA take violations of the law seriously."
But given some of Meyer's other comments on the medical marijuana issue, it is hard to take him seriously. Last Friday, as demonstrators gathered in front of his San Francisco office, Meyer claimed the agency was only going after "major dealers." When asked about the patients at the rally, Meyer said, "we see them as victims of their traffickers."
California elected officials are starting to take the whole thing seriously, too. Last week, Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote to Ashcroft and DEA head Asa Hutchinson asking for a meeting. There has been no substantive response. On Wednesday, Gov. Gray Davis finally weighed in, telling a radio interviewer: "I'm going to work with our Attorney General, Bill Lockyer to see if we can't get on the same page with the federal government. They're entitled to have a different scheme at the federal level, but clearly we ought to find some way to have an accommodation. I mean, both the state and the federal governments work for the same people, the American people."
Davis, who did not support the passage of Proposition 215, the state's medical marijuana law, has now changed his tune. "I did not support that initiative when it was on the ballot; but as governor, it's my job to enforce the laws that the people pass, and the people passed this law."
"Ah, Gray Davis, a day late and a dollar short," scoffed Gieringer, conceding that at least Davis now supports that law.
But if medical marijuana advocates are united in their antipathy toward the federal incursions on California sovereignty, there is some confusion about where to go from here. While the Monday demonstration in Sacramento is aimed at state officials, for Gieringer the most likely avenue of success in the medium term lies in the federal courts.
"This is going to federal court," he predicted. "There are some really serious issues we can win on appeal. With some luck, we can make real progress on the legal front. There will be at least three or four lawsuits filed. An attack on a patient growing for personal use is ripe for a constitutional challenge," he said.
Another avenue for action could be the Congress. "It depends on the elections," Gieringer said. "If the Democrats win the House, we're apt to have hearings next year. But it would probably take several years to get anything. There is also some talk of an appropriations amendment to stop the feds from doing medical marijuana raids," he said.
For national NORML's Allen St. Pierre, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are targets. "No one in the Senate has talked about medical marijuana," he said, "we can't find a word. If Boxer would get up as senators can and dump something into the record about why we need a better system and the federal government needs to be more respectful, that would be an important step," St. Pierre argued. "Another tack is to get Rep. Nancy Pelosi to step up. She is the second or third most powerful Democrat in the House and a cosponsor of the Barney Frank bill. Maybe she could introduce a bill under her name that incorporates the Frank bill."
Despite the uncertainty, said Gieringer, "people are energized." And they are angry. "The federal government has gone way over the line. Every American can see they have no business doing this. We will show them up for the nasty ignorant prohibitionists they are. This is Ashcroft and the Bush administration at their absolute worst, and these petty, twisted prohibitionists are going to pay a price."
Visit http://www.safeaccess.org for information on Monday's demonstration.